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30-04-2020 | Original Article

When cognitive control harms rather than helps: individuals with high working memory capacity are less efficient at infrequent contraction of attentional breadth

Psychological Research
Stephanie C. Goodhew
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The online version of this article (https://​doi.​org/​10.​1007/​s00426-020-01344-x) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.

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Different attentional breadths facilitate performance on different types of perceptual tasks. For instance, a narrow attentional breadth improves spatial resolution; whereas a broad attentional breath enhances face perception. This means that to optimise attention for the dynamic demands of real-world vision, it is necessary to efficiently resize attentional breadth. Previous research has shown that individuals differ considerably in how efficiently they can resize their attentional breadth. Since working memory capacity can be conceptualised as the ability to effectively regulate one’s attentional resources, the present study examined whether individual differences in attentional resizing efficiency were related to working memory capacity. Tasks that gauge the efficiency of attentional contraction (resizing from broad to narrow focus) and attentional expansion (resizing from narrow to broad) were used, in addition to standard working memory measures. It was found that individuals high in working memory capacity experienced a greater cost in attentional contraction, that is, they were less efficient in resizing from a broad to a narrow attentional focus. This is likely because the attentional resizing tasks encourage the setting of a particular attentional breadth for the majority of trials in a block, and then gauge efficiency in changing from this breadth on the minority of trials. This means that high-capacity individuals may have more readily adopted the dominant attentional breadth, particularly in the majority-global condition, thereby incurring a greater cost on the infrequent trials requiring resizing to the local level. This shows that at least in some circumstances, greater cognitive control can be a relative disadvantage.

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